Home » Massachusetts Is Banning Cars From Japan Without Telling Enthusiasts Why

Massachusetts Is Banning Cars From Japan Without Telling Enthusiasts Why

Mass Bans Ts
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For more than three years, Americans living on the East Coast have been finding their states increasingly cold to the idea of registering tiny cars imported from Japan. Maine, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia all have some problem with otherwise legal vintage cars from Japan, and now you can add Massachusetts to that list. The state has secretly rolled out a new policy that bans Kei vehicles, but accidentally has the effect of banning all over 25-year-old vehicles from Japan, but not from any other country. That’s bad enough, but the state isn’t really telling enthusiasts why.

I feel like I’m beginning to sound like a broken record here. It was just last week when I reported that Michigan has launched its own Kei vehicle ban. Almost immediately after that story, David McChristian, the founder of Lone Star Kei and the advocate we worked with on the story of the big win in Texas, reached out to me with news that trouble was brewing in Massachusetts.

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However, unlike these previous states, Massachusetts decided to roll out a new policy before creating any public-facing documents on the matter. As a result, Kei vehicle enthusiasts are experiencing headaches at the Registry of Motor Vehicles (the DMV to almost everyone else) and they do not know why. I reached out to the state and after hearing the most depressing hold music for too many hours, I finally have an answer.

Massachusetts Begins Banning Cars

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Mercedes Streeter

I was tipped off to a potential new RMV policy in Massachusetts when readers and advocates began sending me reports that owners of cars imported from Japan are getting turned away from registration.

Reports have been piling into the newly-created ‘Massachusetts JDM Imports Advocates‘ Facebook group as well as the ‘New England Mini Kei Truck / Van JDM Group CT NY MA RI VT NH ME NJ scene’ group. There’s been a lot of confusion thanks to the way that Massachusetts has decided to enact its new policy. As of right now, the owner of an imported Japanese market vehicle can go to an RMV office and if they walk out with a registration seems to hinge heavily on if the office is aware of the new policy. If the office is aware of the new policy, the vehicle owner is told that their vehicle cannot be registered.

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As of now, the Massachusetts RMV offices have not been clear as to why this is happening. Some have been told it’s because the state no longer registers imports with short VINs and some were told that the state no longer registers vehicles that do not meet American safety standards. Raymond Moy received this paper:

Rmv Letter
Raymond Moy

The problem with this document is that it doesn’t really reference any state law. Why is a short VIN suddenly a problem? It should be noted that Massachusetts enthusiasts have been able to register legally imported vehicles prior to this, so it’s not like a short Vehicle Identification Number was a problem in the past.

Unfortunately, the lack of communication from the state has led to a lot of speculation. If Massachusetts has banned short VINs, what does this mean for classic cars? 17-digit VINs didn’t become standard in America until 1981. If you are generous and assume the state is just targeting imports with short VINs, it still means an effective total ban on cars imported from Japan since Japanese market vehicles, even newer ones, don’t have the VIN format the state would be looking for.

One enthusiast got pretty close to the core of the issue, but even Massachusetts gave him a cold shoulder:

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I’m not satisfied with guesswork, so I decided to find out what’s going on for myself.

Massachusetts Accidentally Bans All JDM Cars

I started off my search by combing through the Mass RMV website system. As of publishing, here’s what the website says about “Imported Foreign Vehicles:”

Rmvstuff

I’ve been digging these pages for a while and did not find a single mention of denying registration to an imported vehicle that complies with the infamous “25-year rule.”

For those of you not following this journey, America bans the importation of a vehicle unless it is either converted to EPA and Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards or is at least 25 years old. The EPA rule is a 21-year ban, but it is still effectively a 25-year ban since you’re usually trying to import a whole car. Anyway, once a car is at least 25 years old, the federal government no longer cares how safe the vehicle is.

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However, there are two prongs to legalizing an imported vehicle, and pleasing the feds is just one of them. Your second hurdle is the state. The states reserve the right to dictate what vehicles can and cannot drive on their roads and as we’ve been seeing for more than three years, some states do not care if your vehicle got through Customs without a problem.

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Mercedes Streeter

I’ve spent several hours looking into this and have finally reached a breakthrough this morning. First, I have to say that Massachusetts has the most depressing hold music I’ve listened to in years. It’s as if the RMV knows you’re in for a bad time.

Anyway, I first contacted the state’s RMV helpline, where I spoke with a call center representative before being punted to a supervisor. That supervisor then sent me to the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, who sent me to Jacquelyn Goddard, the MassDOT Director of Communications. That ended up being a dead end as Goddard didn’t answer the phone and the line did not allow me to leave a message. So, I sent them an email. I also contacted Colleen Ogilvie, The Registrar of Motor Vehicles.

Sadly, I found myself spinning my wheels without any more information than the enthusiasts had. But, I don’t like to give up that easily and I called up the RMV Titling Department. The person at the call center had no idea what I was talking about but sent me up to the supervisor team, where I spoke with Natasha.

Thankfully, Natasha knows all about what’s happening right now and she will be in a meeting later today where the details of the ban will be finalized. She was able to give me the specifics of the current policy but warned that details may change after today’s meeting. Once the state irons out what it wants to do with imported vehicles, it will update its website, train its offices, and send out documentation.

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Mitsubishi Minicab – Mitsui Co

So, here’s what’s currently happening with imported vehicles. Natasha tells me that as of right now, the RMV is under orders from its legal department to deny the registration of vehicles believed to be in Japan’s tiny Kei class. The list of vehicles is currently:

Honda Acty (truck and van)
Suzuki Carry/Every
Mitsubishi Minicab (truck and van)
Autozam/Mazda Scrum (truck and van)
Subaru Sambar (truck and van)
Isuzu Mini Truck
Nissan Clipper
Toyota LiteAce/TownAce
Daihatsu Hijet/Atrai

Toyota Liteace 1993 Pictures 1
Toyota

Now, this list is quite interesting. I’m not aware of an “Isuzu Mini Truck” or even an Isuzu Kei truck of any kind. The smallest trucks Isuzu has sold are larger than Kei size. The same goes for the Toyota LiteAce (above) and the TownAce, which were sold in America in the past. Those vans are far larger than Kei vans. I’m also scratching my head a bit over the inclusion of the Nissan Clipper since that Kei vehicle launched in 2003, so they aren’t even legal to import yet, anyway.

(Update, June 21: Another report has come in of an RMV refusal to register a JDM 1996 Honda Civic. The state claims to be targeting Keis, but is applying the new policy to seemingly any JDM vehicle.)

Natasha explained to me that the state is targeting vehicles that do not meet FMVSS, with a focus on vehicles the state identifies to be in the Kei class. The RMV identifies a Kei vehicle through the above list and through a short VIN. The state’s logic is that this will be for safety since a Kei vehicle is not built to FMVSS.

I’m sure you can see the problem here. Not only does the above list include vehicles outside of the Kei class, but the state doesn’t seem to be aware that short VINs are not limited to Kei vehicles. A large Nissan Civilian bus will have a short VIN, as would a Toyota Century. I asked Natasha about how the state will interpret short VINs and she told me that they will be applied only to vehicles believed to be in the Kei class with a short VIN. The state is not looking to deny registration to vehicles imported from other countries, either. So, you could import a Japanese car that was sold in Europe and the state wouldn’t care. But that same car from Japan would be a problem.

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A bus longer than its VIN is – Car From Japan

Unfortunately, since the state doesn’t seem to be very good at identifying Kei vehicles, this means anyone trying to register an imported Japanese vehicle can be rolling the dice.

I also asked Natasha about the many enthusiasts with vehicles already registered in the state. She told me that as of right now, the state should not be looking to revoke their plates. However, Natasha also warned that could change after today’s meeting. Those who registered their vehicles in the past month or so may also see their plates revoked.

What I have been able to confirm is that no matter what happens in today’s meeting, Massachusetts will be moving forward with removing what it thinks are Kei vehicles from its roads. This will put enthusiasts into a bind and some people are already considering registering their vehicles in Montana to avoid this debacle.

What You Can Do Right Now

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Too much truck for Massachusetts – Car From Japan

Unfortunately, if you’ve followed my work for long enough, you will know where I’m going with this. It would appear that Massachusetts is following guidance issued by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. I’ve written about these folks so much I can almost recite them like poetry, but click here to learn more about the AAMVA and why it’s a problem.

The group has been coming down hard on imported vehicles since the summer of 2021, with the publishing of a document instructing member states to ban any vehicle that doesn’t meet FMVSS. They’re the reason why so many states are suddenly banning vehicles seemingly out of nowhere. The crazy part about all of this is while the AAMVA has an ax to grind against Kei trucks, the group really wants to remove all gray market imports from America. So, if you’re a fan of any once-forbidden fruit from anywhere, not just tiny cars from Japan, you will want to do what you can to stop the spread of these bans.

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Texas and North Carolina saw great success. They didn’t sue their state. Instead, they collaborated with their states’ lawmakers and DMV administrators. They educated their lawmakers and DMVs on what Kei vehicles are and why they should be legal. North Carolina’s enthusiasts won the privilege to drive Kei trucks on the road in 2019 while Texas was the first to beat the post-2021 AAMVA recommendations.

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Banned before it’s even legal to import. – Nissan

Enthusiasts in Texas and North Carolina recommend banding groups together to change laws and policies through collaboration rather than fighting. Sadly, the folks of Georgia can tell you that a lawsuit isn’t cheap nor quick. Remember that a state essentially has unlimited money to drag out a case as long as it wants to.

Of course, sometimes the state just doesn’t want to hear it. That’s the nightmare being faced by people in Maine and Rhode Island right now. Eventually, you may end up left with no other choice than sliding a lawyer into the courtroom.

As always, we’ll continue monitoring the imported vehicle situation in America and update you when we have news. We’re also working on getting closer into the AAMVA to answer the question of “why?” The AAMVA has yet to answer why it cares so much about Kei vehicles and we intend on finding it out. Until then, hold your cars tight and it might be worth befriending a politician or a few.

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Turbotictac
Turbotictac
18 days ago

There are a ton of Kei vehicles running around Wilmington, NC. I see multiple daily. A lot of the local dealerships use them for parts deliveries and such. Even before they were legal the local Honda dealer had several they used onsite. I have even noticed an increasing number of handyman businesses and such that drive them. I love it.

Sivad Nayrb
Sivad Nayrb
19 days ago

Hmm. Most of these States mentioned with Kei registration issues appear to be Liberal states.

You’re getting Progressively boned.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
18 days ago
Reply to  Sivad Nayrb

Oh you want to turn this into politics? Okay… how about Abortion and how the “freedumb” Republican party are boning women by taking away their freedoms?

In reality, some of the states this is happening in have swung back and forth between one side and the other.

And these Kei vehicle bans likely are the result of backroom dealing and are not party-specific or tied to any specific way a given state leans politically at any given time.

Chally_Sheedy
Chally_Sheedy
19 days ago

There’s a guy in my town who daily drives a Minitruck around town with his big dog.

It’s RHD, naturally, so I almost always look over and think for a moment that a big handsome dog is driving a tiny handsome truck around town.

These small joys should be available to all of us.

Last edited 19 days ago by Chally_Sheedy
Andrew Reeves
Andrew Reeves
20 days ago

I believe the MA rule is only for kei vehicles and not all Japanese imports.

Max Finkel
Max Finkel
21 days ago

The Mass RRMV is the worst. And they’re definitely susceptible to outside influence.

There is no other explanation for the way driver’s ed is done in the state. Anyone who went through it can tell you that there is something causing the RMV to require you to do that many hours in a classroom during school vacation. And it’s definitely not driver qualification or safety.

Frank Wrench
Frank Wrench
21 days ago

There are a lot of Mass RMV branches and I doubt you can get 2 clerks to give you the same answer on anything. I took 2 vehicles off the road last fall and kept the plates on them (you don’t have to turn them in.) Put vehicle 1 back on the road this Spring, was able to reuse the plates. A few weeks later I put vehicle 2 back on the road and couldn’t reuse the plates because “they had been cancelled.”

Cerberus
Cerberus
21 days ago

According to national companies that deal with all the states, MA RMV is a special circle of hell even beyond the normal RMVs. The ridiculous hoops I’ve had to jump through just to try to get a stupid utility trailer registered is something you’d see in a sitcom that one would think is exaggerated for comedic effect. Hopefully, they’re out of hoops.

There are a good number of these small trucks driving around in MA. What I find more worrying than this capricious and unexplained registration revocation of these vehicles, though, is the typical ignorance/feigned ignorance in the writing of these regulations. “Oh, this only refers to these specific vehicles even though the rules exclude a massive number of other vehicles and the vehicles they specify as being from a certain category don’t even fit that category, don’t worry, about it!” Sure. I’m not traditionally one to jump on the slippery slope accusations, but watching what was considered to be long-won rights being eroded and how the creatures behind these erosions are pushing even further, I can’t help but wonder if this is an opening for a long game to ban all older cars in the future. As cars become more boring and ownership more onerous so that generations of people are raised largely never becoming exposed to the old joys of driving to the point that they won’t care if it happens, there will be few people to fight those actions in the future.

The real question is who the POS in the AAMVA are so we can get an idea of what their ultimate goals might be.

Angular Banjoes
Angular Banjoes
21 days ago
Reply to  Cerberus

“I can’t help but wonder if this is an opening for a long game to ban all older cars in the future.”

My friend, this is literally the first thing that came to my mind. Our federal and state governments (well, some states anyhow) are hell-bent on forcing people into electric cars regardless of whether or not people actually want them. Once they start doing shit like this, it’s not a huge stretch to believe that they’ll extend the ban to all cars older than 25 years or whatever. Maybe not an outright ban, they’ll make it so onerous to register an older car that people won’t even bother. The slope is indeed slippery in my opinion.

Sivad Nayrb
Sivad Nayrb
19 days ago

Damn straight, this has been the intent all along.

… one more cog in the Progressive control of the Citizens machine.

Tristan Hixon
Tristan Hixon
18 days ago
Reply to  Sivad Nayrb

You really need to lay off the hard drugs, son.

Strangek
Strangek
21 days ago

Ugh. Are these people just bored or what? There seems to be no shortage of actual pressing concerns that could be addressed instead.

JumboG
JumboG
21 days ago

This is what happens when the interests of Republican and Democrats are aligned, but for different reasons. Republicans don’t want these used cars from out of the country competing with their OHV only vehicles such as side-by-sides. Democrats don’t want more polluting, unsafe vehicles on the road, as attrition takes care of the ones already here.

Professor Chorls
Professor Chorls
21 days ago
Reply to  JumboG

Far as I can tell, these days, cross-aisle alignment only happens when the average citizen is put in a detrimental state…

Sklooner
Sklooner
21 days ago

Just claim it’s a handgun

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